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Ravi Shankar Prasad alleges Congress has links to rogue data firm Cambridge Analytica: All you need to know

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The Bharatiya Janata Party has made an allegation that Congress has links with the London-based firm Cambridge Analytica, thereby stirring a controversy. The company has been accused of harvesting private data from millions of Facebook profiles to influence and identify voter behaviour.

In a press conference, BJP spokesperson and Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked Congress president Rahul Gandhi to come clean on the issue as he questioned the party’s association with a “rogue data analysis firm.”

“Will Congress party depend upon data manipulation and theft to win votes? Mr. Rahul Gandhi should explain the role of Cambridge Analytica in his social media profile,” he asked.

Prasad’s allegation comes after two newspapers- the New York Times and London’s Observer- on Sunday reported that British data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data about Facebook users since 2014. Now the company is at the center of controversy in the United States and in Britain.

Cambridge Analytica is best known for assisting in the 2016 presidential campaign of US President Donald Trump. The company is now facing a government search of its London office, questions from US state authorities, and a demand by Facebook that it submit to a forensic audit.

Prasad pointed out Economic Times report from October 2017 to accuse Congress party of having alleged links with Cambridge Analytica.

“My question to Congress party is whether to win elections, Congress will depend on data manipulation and theft of data,” he said. “What is the role of Cambridge Analytica in social media profile of Rahul Gandhi,” he asked.

The Economic Times report said that Congress had roped in the controversial agency to run their 2019 and termed it as their ‘Brahmastra’ against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“According to media reports, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix has met several opposition leaders to design electoral strategy for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the next Lok Sabha elections. The company has made a presentation to the Congress in which it detailed the strategy to target voters online,” the report said.

While Hindustan Times had also made similar suggestions in its report that was published two days ago, wherein the publication claims that the London-based firm has set its eyes on wooing politicians in South Asia. Moreover, the firm was in touch with both Congress and the BJP, report said.

“The firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA), and its India partner, Oveleno Business Intelligence (OBI) Private Limited, have spoken to both the Congress and the BJP for a possible collaboration for their 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigns… it has had talks with the Congress and the BJP, with former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is making a bid to get re-elected in 2020, and with the Awami League, the ruling party in Bangladesh, which is seeking re-election in 2019,” the Hindustan Times report said.

So what is Cambridge Analytica?

With a focus on the US elections, Cambridge Analytica, which is an offshoot of SCL Group, was created around 2013 initially. Billionaire and Republican donor Robert Mercer had backed the company with $15 million and a name chosen by future Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, reports the New York Times.

The company claims to be a government and military contractor that works on everything from food security research to counter-narcotics to political campaigns. SCL was founded more than 25 years ago, according to its website.

As per The New York Times report, the company has mostly employed British workers then, assisted by Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign before helping Trump’s.

What do they do?

The company markets itself rendering consumer research targeted advertising and other data-related services to both political and corporate clients.

Cambridge Analytica does not list its corporate clients, however, on its website reports them as incorporating a daily newspaper that desired to know more about its subscribers. A women’s clothing brand was also included that sought research on its customers and a US auto insurer interested in marketing itself.

Britain’s Channel 4 News reported on Monday, based on a secretly recorded video, that Cambridge Analytica secretly stage-managed Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns in the hotly contested 2013 and 2017 elections. Cambridge Analytica denied the report.

The company’s website lists five office locations in New York, Washington, London, Brazil and Malaysia.

What is it they’re accused of?

In 2014, Cambridge Analytica had obtained data on 50 million Facebook users via means that deceived both the users and Facebook, as per the New York Times and London’s Observer report that was published on Saturday.

The company harvested the date through an application developed by a British academic, Aleksandr Kogan. More than 270,000 people had downloaded the application and logged in with their Facebook credentials, claims Facebook. The application gathered their data and data about their friends,  and then Kogan passed the data to Cambridge Analytica, according to both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.

However, Cambridge Analytica claimed on Saturday that it did not initially know Kogan violated Facebook’s terms. The company later deleted the data once it discovered in 2015.

While the two newspaper on Saturday alleges that the company did not delete the data, which Cambridge Analytica rubbished it. Facebook said it was investigating to verify the accuracy of the claim.

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